So, one day, while puttering about my back yard, I inhale this oxygen atom, which, I come to learn, years ago, was part of a steak eaten by Albert Einstein, then metabolized into a part of his brain, and remained there for a time, while he worked out his notions of time, space and relativity. Then it was cast out of old Albert, in the ususal manner, and ultimately escaped into the atmosphere — until I sucked it into my left nostril. Do I get a sudden rush of enlightenment as it passes through my system? Of course not, I remain as dull witted as I’ve always been, in comparison to Albert. But I do find myself thinking about what it might be like if I indeed inhaled such an atom, until it occurs to me, “Maybe that atom is inspiring me to write its story!” “What story?”, you ask. This one, about tracking that atom from the primordial soup, so to speak, to the point I just described.
I confess, the whole notion somehow reminds me of these stories about how some people are taken, through some form of dream regression, to what they allege are recollections of their prior incarnations. I sort of snicker at this, because whomever is doing the regressing, so to speak, never seems to recollect having been an ordinary miscreant. No, they always recollect themselves as being a historical figure, and having been somewhat nobler than the ordinary masses. Really! But I digress. What I think to myself is, “Well, okay, if the reincarnate can be noble, so too can this atom I’m going to write about, because what the hell, it’s my atom, and I’ll give it whatever history I want to. So, this is my atom’s story, as it was related to me.

“I’m an oxygen atom. I was born during the first eon after the ‘big bang,’ about two-hundred nautical miles from the congealing mass that became the planet you now call ‘Earth.’ I got myself sucked into the upper atmosphere, about four million years after I first experienced it’s gravitational tug. Being somewhat rebellious in my youth, I married early, and resided in the ocean that covered the bulk of the planet, five billion years ago, as part of a water molecule along with two hydrogen atoms I’d mated with, a few hundred million years before. As fate would have it, one day while we were bobbing along near the shoreline of Pangea, a lightning bolt struck and freed me from my mates, sending me off into the atmosphere again.”

“You humans may have some difficulty imagining what it’s like to hang around for millions of years — given your inability to maintain your relatively flawed structures for more than seventy or so years at a time. But for us atoms, it’s no big deal. There’s no need to differentiate between day or night, one day or year or the next. We don’t notice light or dark, elapsed time or any other such human perceptions. What would be the point? There isn’t any, all that matters to us atoms is our state. Are we free standing, or are we hitched up as part of a larger molecule? That’s it.”

“When we’re free standing, we atoms can satisfy ourselves with the business of being such — maintaining state, bouncing our way through the cosmos, and just enjoying the satisfaction of being perfect. Oh yes we are! Our components always do what they’re supposed to do, and never seek to do anything different. None of my protons ever yearn to become one of my electrons, and vice versa; nor do any of the latter ever get tired and decide to miss a lap or two or a billion (you know they move a bit quicker than what you might notice, but I digress.) Oh, one of them may change course every now and then, when they get goosed by a photon, but they never miss a lap, unless the goosing from the photon just blasted it clear off me, and when that happens, well, I just get another one, and an identical twin at that. Now there’s some atoms that have a natural propensity for degenerating, in a manner you humans call radioactive decay, but that’s because the Almighty made them that way, and all the atoms that do so, well, let’s just say they were a little over-weight to begin with. Some of you humans have recently devised ways to dismember some of us atoms and shoot us at one another, so as to break us into tinier bits, as if you were going to learn something real important. Let me save you some time. We atoms are all made up of the same basic stuff — congealed energy. Some energy congeals into quarks, some into leptons and some into gauge bosons, but they are all still the same stuff — energy on a vacation, so to speak. I can see your eye’s rolling back in your head. Too much information, I guess. Sorry for the digression. Now where was I? Oh, yeah.”

“Now when we atoms marry, as we are wont to do, from time to time, we might hook up with another atom, or two, or ten (we’re not monogamous, that’s a human invention) and share some of our electrons, to enjoy being in a different state. I confess to some of my own personal prejudice here. I much prefer being an oxide, married to a metal, than being water, and married to a pair of dim witted hydrogen atoms, but I can’t say either experience is entirely without merit. There are only so many revolutions an electron can make around the same old nucleus, before wanting to take a spin about a different one, even if it’s only a single proton. Think of it as a change of scenery every now and then.”

“Anyhow, life was simple but satisfying in those early days of the cosmos. Maybe somewhat routine, but unencumbered by the rude jolts that now are a part of present day reality, mostly induced by my periodic passages through the human species.”

“Frankly, before humans arrived, the molecular world was in sort of a golden age. There was a substantial variety of plant and animal life through which an enterprising atom could pass, without the angst of ‘listening’ to the frightful thoughts and ‘impulses’ that are commonplace when passing through a human. Oh, sure, I’ve done a tour of duty through the body of a few carnivores here and there, raptors, tyrannosaurs, lions and tigers and bears, (oh my) who regularly and professionally killed for a ‘living.’ But the biggest, badest, hungriest one of them critters, never pulled the wings off a fly, just out of pure meanness; or, killed a sibling, parent or mate over some petty jealousy or out of simple greed — only you humans apparently specialize in that kind of baseness. What can I say? When you have spent eons in the tranquility of a universe uninhabited by creatures capable of such lowness, it is a shock to one’s system to find it exists, and is multiplying with ferocity. It took me several thousands of years to understand what it meant to experience my first human. Then I finally understood what the carbon atom I was married to at the time meant when she said, ‘Uh-oh, there goes the neighborhood!’, but I digress”

“Anyway, a long way back, I happened to be resident, as part of a sugar molecule, in an apple that was growing on what the Almighty got to calling the ‘Tree of Knowledge.’ Why He couldn’t call it an apple tree, just like the hundred or so others that were growing in this garden, which He called ‘Eden,’ I think, I don’t know. Anyway, this female of your species, ‘Eve,’ I believe was her name, plucked this apple I was content to be residing in, and fed it to her boyfriend. I got taken along with the first bite. Well, no sooner did he take that bite when all hell broke loose. I remember the poor sucker, ‘Adam’ or ‘Adnan’ was his name, thinking to himself, the minute he swallowed, ‘What in all creation am I doing? He told us not to eat any fruit from this tree. Now He’s going to drop something really bad on us. Why did I listen to that dopey…? Hey, that’s some butt she’s got on her! How come I never noticed it before?’ Well, with the fury that was unleashed a few moments after, I was metabolized and returned to the soil as fertilizer faster than I ever was since. Before I left though, I came into contact with a feeling that I’d never felt before, and have only experienced since while inside a human — I believe you refer to it as remorse. Humans are the only creatures which require such a sentiment, as they are the only creatures which ever do the kinds of mis-deeds that require it to be felt. I’ve been in creatures so tiny, you can’t see them with just your eyes; and so large, you would look like an insect next to one. But I’ve never seen one of them ever do one thing to another creature that prompted the need to feel remorse. What took me some time to reconcile myself to, was the recognition that the more one of your kind ought to have been experiencing remorse, the less likely it was that it would actually be felt, but I digress.”

“Now some time later, I remember being hitched to an iron atom, and we got ourselves beaten into a rivet on this Roman aristocrat’s helmet, I recollect his name being Brutus or some similar name that was popular at the time. One hot sunny day, that rivet just happened to be touching his scalp, and what with his scalp sweating and all, my proximity enabled me to jump ship from the iron atom and hitch up with a sodium one. Next thing I know is we hook up with a water molecule and drip into his eye and now I can read his thought patterns just as clearly as if I were hitched to a hydrogen atom and serving as part of a ganglia in his brain. Talk about a jealous, pompous, impatient son of a gun? His best friend, Julius or Julio, makes him about as famous as you could get, without there being any mass media like television, radio or newspapers. Julius makes Brutus so wealthy than he’d never have time to spend any but a small part of his share of the plunder before he expired (life expectancy in those days being even briefer than the miserable three score and sixteen those of your ilk have been getting lately.) Julius’ kindness to Brutus enables him to get just about any woman he wants (dare I add, and boys, men, apes, goats, chickens, whatever, them old Romans would party with anyone and anything, if you get my drift.) Does this make Brutus happy? Not on your life! He’s sitting there thinking to himself, ‘I’ve got to waste Julius — he’s getting too ambitious.’ Brutus would have been a slave, collecting rocks and mating with sheep if it weren’t for Julius — who not only taught him how to hold a sword, but how to look like a meaner, fiercer, son of a gun than he really was. Julius inspired everyone who came into his proximity to be better than they were ever before. He conquered everything there was to conquer — and did it to give his fellow Romans a sense of pride in what they were (or, should I say, what he believed they could be, because, in my opinion, what they really were was a bunch of drunken, degenerates, whose greatest contribution to society theretofore was the game craps — played with real bones, but I digress.) Now I’m not saying Julius was any saint. He had his bad points, including a rather insensitive approach to those unfortunate enough to succumb to his well trained legions. But those were his enemies, and political correctness hadn’t been invented yet. For his friends and countrymen, there was no deed too great or too small that he wouldn’t sooner do himself than put someone else out. If you were in a brawl, you wanted Julius covering your butt. Ambitious, yes. To a fault? I don’t think so. Those old Romans needed an inspirational leader — if only to keep them sober, every other day.”

But Brutus, as is the wont of those who have it all come so easily, because of the efforts of someone other than themselves, he’s sipping his wine, doing what he’s particularly ill equipped to do — thinking. And what is Brutus thinking? ‘Even though Julius has passed up the opportunity to crown himself Emperor of Rome three times in a single day, there’s no way he’s going to turn it down a fourth time. Besides, Julius is so young, I’ll be senile and incontinent before I get a crack at it.’ Brutus also thinks of himself as a much better administrator than Julius. ‘After all, whose idea was it to execute messengers bearing bad tidings? Julius’? Not on your life! I, Brutus thought that one up, and Julius hasn’t gotten a bad message since. No,’ Brutus decides, ‘Julius has to go. He did great things, but, you know the old saying, “No good deed will go unpunished!”’ What’s wrong with you people? I marvel at your ingratitude and downright ‘brutishness.’ Would you like to guess where that term came from?”

“In time, Brutus got his just desserts anyway. When he did, I got myself back into the atmosphere. I could have mated a thousand times; but, frankly, my experience with Brutus had soured me so, I was hesitant to hook up with any elemental material that could be of the remotest use to a human, for fear I’d repeat my latest misadventure. I wouldn’t have been much company with that frame of mind, and why punish my mate for what some human did?”

“So I’m floating above a castle in England one afternoon, when I ventured too close to ground level, and came to be inhaled by a king, Richard was his name, I think. Fortuity being what it is, despite my reluctance to be involved with humanity, there I was, lodged in his brain, waiting my turn to enliven one of his ganglias, and listening to what’s going on in his head. Of course, you are entitled to your notions of the man. But historians being what they are, human observers at best, who are prone to see what they want to see, (and conjecturers at worst, who look at results, and then make up an explanation for what caused it, that sounds plausible, or suits their political goals, but I digress.) It never seems to occur to any of you humans that unless you actually hear what’s going on in another’s head, you never really know what they’re thinking, or what their true motivation was.”

“Now I’ve seen from further contact with your species, that lately, most of you who exercise your brains to the point of purporting to be literate, attribute to Richard the notion that he would fight a great crusade against the Saracens, in order to recover the Holy Grail, and restore custody to its proper owners, the Christians. Horse puckey, I say.”

“In comparison to Brutus, old Richard was a saint — which, is not saying much, because once you had some familiarity with both, calling either a saint was about as efficacious as saying Brutus was cow manure and Richard was bat guano. What’s the difference? They’re both dung! But, I digress.”

“Historians say Richard was motivated by religious conviction. I say he was motivated by his lust. Oh, sure, every other Sunday, his wife would drag his butt into a church for a few hours of lamentation and breast beating. But old Richard, he’d rather be playing with a damsel’s breast than beating his own in remorse for his lust and lack of initiative in matters of state (which confused his simple, over-sexed mind.) But wenching was dangerous sport in his own back yard. If word of a playful liaison got back to Lady Gwenivere, she’d cut his family jewels off, (no, not the one’s on his head) relegating sex to a matter of memory and imagination, of which he had little of either, the former because of extensive drinking, the latter because of extensive dullness. Thus, he was looking for an excuse to get himself out of England, but was too dumb to think of an excuse.”

“Fortuity struck one Sunday, at his wife’s behest. Dragging him kicking and screaming to church services, he managed to stay awake long enough to listen to another interminable sermon, the point of which, it developed, was that the Lord’s drinking cup, the very one that had been employed by Him to consecrate the wine at the last Supper, was at that very moment being defiled by the sacrilegious Saracens. Dull as he was, Richard knew an irresistible offer when he heard one. How could Lady G say no? Wasn’t she always carping that he hadn’t enough religion? What better act of love for God and country, than to go off and retrieve the sacred cup from its vile captors. (That this presented an opportunity to diddle every wench between France and Africa needn’t be pointed out — this was a mission for God!) For the record, during my entire tenure in him, the notion of remorse for this sacrilege, or for anything else, for that matter, never once occurred to old Richard. Yes, I’m as shocked as you are, but I am not dismayed.”

“It has been scientifically proven that a male lion can mate as often as 155 times in a 55 hour period. This would explain why Richard was known as the lionhearted, if you get my point. I was relieved of my service to Richard long before he diddled his first French wench, which, for the true historians, was approximately ten minutes after he landed (I know this from a sodium atom with whom I had mated some centuries back, who was part of his…well, never mind.”)

“I can see you have doubts. This is of no concern to me, for I believe your species incapable of understanding any of the truly important points in the universe. You are all too consumed with delusions of your own grandeur, to concentrate on any matters of true consequence. However, as ever so gradual improvement in a species is somewhat a universal law, I offer some further exposition, in the spirit of the mandate.”

“While a free floating atom again, I had occasion to be inhaled by one of the allegedly better examples of your species, Albert Einstein, whom historians now credit with having ‘thought up’ the theory of relativity. Really!”

“Before going any further, let me say that, contrary to my experience with most of your species, Albert was almost sui generis. But, an original thinker? Please! Oh, the man could do tricks with numbers — he was a regular scientific calculator, before some other genius decided it would be better to share the wealth, by putting the tricks into the hand held variety, which never makes a mistake. Albert, on the other hand, often made them, but who would know? Most people never knew what the hell he was talking about anyway — even his colleagues.”

“Your species, acting out of genuine ignorance, attributes what you call intelligence, to your brain. For most, the thinking part stops there. Some of you actually wrestle with the notion that the brain operates as some sort of a machine, having organic and chemical parts, in the place of mechanical or electronic ones. Reduced to its ultimate, natural, human, conclusion, it is inferred that when some genius has an original idea, it is because some spark ignited in a ganglia, somewhere in the inner cortex, and viola, an idea is born! Such nonsense. Why does no one inquire, ‘okay, but why did the ganglia fire in the first instance? Heartburn?’ Please!”

“So, as is my fate, I am resident in Albert’s brain one afternoon. He is in a quandary over matter and energy, and is talking to himself in his mind, close to burn out in frustration over his inability to reconcile the two. ‘Ach…matter…energy… energy… matter — so what’s the difference?’ I cannot bear to contend with what sin against the allegedly lower forms of life will be perpetrated if he is not put out of his misery. In a break with tradition, I speak out. ‘There is none, you dumb-head!’ ‘Who said that?’, Albert says to himself. When he gets no response, human that he is, he thinks about it for a moment, realizes what he heard is right, scribbles some equations in his notebook and proceeds to take credit for the idea. I am soon after pissed away, literally, without a thank you.”

“I can see you still have doubts. Who cares. You humans never change. The guy who wrote this thinks he thought of it himself. Go figure.”

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